Manslaughter is defined as the unintentional killing of a person by another. According to the Penal code, manslaughter is defined as an individual unlawfully killing another person without malice. California law acknowledges three kinds of manslaughters: vehicular, voluntary, and involuntary manslaughters. Although prosecuted as lesser crimes than murder, the charges for manslaughter are serious in the state of California and carry severe penalties as contained in PEN 191.5 and 192. According to the definition of manslaughter, the person that commits it, may have done so accidentally, but it does not excuse the crime. If you are accused of manslaughter in California, you need to get in touch with an experienced criminal attorney to prepare your defense. Contact us at the California Criminal Lawyer Group and let us help you with your defense.


Voluntary Manslaughter

In California, voluntary manslaughter is defined as when a person kills another with no legal excuse. To do so or when the person acts in conscious disregard of the life of another. However, there is a difference between the laws of murder and voluntary manslaughter. The difference is based on whether the defendant acted with malicious intentions or not. This is also called malice aforethought.

A person is found to have acted with malicious aforethought when their actions were intended to kill known as express malice, or implied malice, with wanton disregard of life. If you kill a person or a fetus and behave in malicious aforethought, you will be charged with murder. However, when people are involved in a heated argument, and suddenly one is killed, the law presumes it as an act without malice. For this reason, the murder is charged as a reduced offense of voluntary manslaughter.


How Does the Law Define Heat of Passion or a Sudden Quarrel?

For a murder to be reduced to voluntary manslaughter, the law expects there to have been a sudden argument, and in the heat of emotions, murder happens. To qualify this, there must be proving of provocation. The law believes that because of the provocation, a person acted fast. They were under the control of emotions that clouded their judgment or reasoning. This kind of provocation is believed can make an average person act in a similar manner without putting much thought into their actions. They act with their emotions, not with sound judgment.

In case there was sufficient time between the provocation and the killing to cool down when you kill, the charges will be those of premeditation and not manslaughter. However, the law does not have clear guidelines as to what equals sufficient provocation, but it cannot be slight. The provocation degree, in this case, is based on an objective standard. How a defendant reacted is measured against what is believed a rational person would respond under similar circumstances.

There are so many cases that are brought before the courts on murder. However, not every murder charge gets reduced to voluntary manslaughter unless it meets the above-discussed parameters.


Possible Legal Defenses

A skilled criminal lawyer can come up with several defenses against voluntary manslaughter. A few of the commonly used defenses include the following:

Self-Defense or Protection of Others or Self-Defense That is Imperfect

Defense laws in California seek to justify why a person killed to protect themselves or others from the possibility of being killed or incurring intense bodily harm. A person could use self-defense if they were protecting themselves from rape, robbery, maiming, or any other serious crime. Self-defense laws make it permissible for a person to take every necessary precaution to protect themselves from harm. For instance, if you are with a friend and a stranger picks a fight with you. You leave, and even after leaving, he follows you holding a knife with the threat to kill, in the fight, you can disarm him and stab him during the fight. If this happens, your conduct may be excused under the self-defense laws of California.

On the other hand, imperfect defense happens when:

You had reason to believe you were facing the possible danger of getting killed or hurt. Consequently, you felt that you needed to use excessive force to protect yourself. If none of these assumptions is right or reasonable, and you still killed a person on that belief, this is imperfect self-defense.

Unfortunately, the imperfect defense does not excuse the defendant from liability of the criminal offense, but it acts as an aspect that can help reduce the charge of murder to that of voluntary manslaughter.


A defendant kills another person, and they seem not to understand what they have done. Or are unable to differentiate what is appropriate and inappropriate, insanity can be used. This means that the defendant can be found not guilty due to insanity. The insanity defense under the laws of California is based on two presumptions.


If by accident, you kill a person; you cannot be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Under the law, an accident, in this case, is when the killer had no prior intentions to cause harm. Additionally, the defendant was not negligent when the accident occurred, or he was not doing anything illegal when the accident happened.

Instance, if during a bar fight, the defendant and the deceased are exchanging punches, the defendant hits the other person very hard that they fall and find a stone that strikes them to death. This means that despite the fight taking place, death was clearly an accident.

Plea Bargain in Murder Cases

When a person is charged with voluntary manslaughter, it is an automatic defense on a murder charge. When a person is charged with murder under PEN 187, they can convince the court that their action was sudden due to a quarrel or emotional passion. If believed, they can get their penalties reduced. A charge on voluntary manslaughter is therefore considered a plea bargain where the murder was performed.

Penalties for Voluntary Manslaughter

When a defendant is convicted of PEN 192(a) violation, the penalties for the voluntary manslaughter will be 3 or 6 or 11 years imprisonment in state prison. In comparison, a person found guilty of violating PEN 187 on murder; they get sentenced to at least 15 years imprisonment. The penalty can be so severe that it can lead to life imprisonment or execution.

Other penalties associated with violating PEN 192(a) manslaughter laws include:


  • With regards to the law on three strikes in California, a possible strike on the defendant's record. This kind of penalty works to enhance your sentence if you previously had a conviction of a felony and for any future felony convictions.
  • A fine not exceeding $10,000
  • The defendant loses the privilege to own and have a firearm according to PEN 29800 on felony with a firearm.
  • Being committed to community service or work like roadside works
  • Court-ordered counseling especially for anger management
  • The court can decide on other conditions considered logical with regard to the circumstances pertaining to the case.

Involuntary Manslaughter PEN 192(b)

Involuntary manslaughter is a crime governed by PEN 192(b) under the laws of California. The crime happens when a person is killed by another unintentionally. Circumstances under which this crime can happen are either:


  • When engaged in a lawful act that may result in death with no proper caution or
  • When committing an illegal act that may not constitute a dangerous felony in California.

Involuntary manslaughter means that the defendant had no intention to cause death, unlike in PEN 187, where one kills with malicious aforethought.

There are many cases that have been tried on involuntary manslaughter — the most famous one being of Micheal Jackson’s doctor that prescribed anesthetic drugs that killed him.

Penalties for PEN 192(b) Violations

Charges of involuntary manslaughter are prosecuted as a felony in the state of California. Some of the possible penalties for this violation will include:

  • A cash fine not exceeding $10,000
  • Jail time of two or three or four years

Legal Defenses

When a person dies under questionable circumstances, law enforcers, as well as the prosecution, get involved. It is natural to want to get someone to take responsibility for the illegal act. Sometimes in a rush to find that person, innocent persons may be accused of the crimes. These individuals are left to fight against the involuntary and illegitimate manslaughter charges. Fortunately, an experienced criminal lawyer can help you by coming up with various defenses. Some of the common defenses your attorney can present before the court include:

  1. Self-defense – this kind of a legal defense is similar to the one used for voluntary manslaughter charges.
  2. Accidental Killing – Similarly, the defense here is similar to that of voluntary manslaughter.

Apart from these two options, your lawyer can use other defenses, as discussed below.

There is Not Enough Evidence for Your Conviction

In some instances, a manslaughter case may seem like it is a straightforward one causing the police to make a rash decision on death. When the prosecutor is presented with the case, he simply takes it as it is without looking at critical aspects. Because of this, have an experienced criminal lawyer is important as they will dig until they uncover the truth to avoid wrongful convictions.

Your lawyer will be able to carry out their independent investigations, talk to the prosecution witnesses and any other, and re-evaluate the evidence. To some extent, a criminal lawyer may engage a specialized forensic scientist that will look more keenly to ascertain what truly happened.

False Accusations or Wrongful Arrest

Additionally, there have been incidences where a person is wrongly accused of involuntary manslaughter. Someone may want to frustrate and revenge on the defendant over something else, or the person or persons involved want to take attention from themselves by apportioning blame.

A criminal lawyer that has significant experience in such cases and understands about technical details will go to great lengths to ensure no stone is unturned.

Vehicular Manslaughter

Law on Vehicular Manslaughter in California applies in instances where the motorist unlawfully drives in a manner that may not amount to a felony but with immense negligence. It may also happen when the driver was doing a lawful act, but the act can produce death in an unlawful way. Sometimes, a driver can cause an accident to gain financially. When this happens, and a person dies during the incidence, the driver will be prosecuted for vehicular manslaughter.

Vehicular manslaughter is a wobbler offense in California. The offense can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on a number of things. If the charges are prosecuted as a felony, and a conviction arrived at, the defendant faces between two and ten years imprisonment. With a felony conviction, the defendant will spend their sentence in the state prison. On the other hand, if prosecuted and convicted as a misdemeanor, the defendant faces a county jail time of not more than a year.


DUI Manslaughter or Watson Murder

If the driver was found to have been intoxicated by alcohol or drugs at the time they caused the killing, they may, at the same time, face charges for driving under the influence. The prosecutors may charge them with violations to PEN 191.5(b), PEN 191.5(a), or Watson murder is also known as DUI murder second degree.

PEN 191.5b – Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated

For a person to be convicted of violating PEN 191.5b, that deals with causing death when they drive under intoxication, a few elements regarding the crime must be present:


  1. The driver was intoxicated by drugs or alcohol and drove a vehicle
  2. While they were driving, they committed a misdemeanor under the infraction laws of California, or they were engaged in a lawful act that could result in death
  3. That the infraction or misdemeanor and any other act was committed with negligence
  4. And because of the negligent actions of the driver, a person died

Below, we discuss these elements more for ease of understanding.

Driving Under Alcohol or Drug Intoxication

A motorist is said to have been driving intoxicated if did one or more of the following:

  • As they were driving, they were in violation of VEH 23152(a) that deals with the laws on driving under the influence in California
  • As the motorist was driving, their blood alcohol content known as the BAC was at 0.08% or more, violating VEH 23152(b)
  • The driver was driving under the intoxication of alcohol or drugs or a combination of both
  • The driver is below the age of 21 and was driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.05% or more. This was in violation of VEH 23140.

A Lawful Act Causing Death, Infraction, or Misdemeanor.

If a person was intoxicated and caused a death due to negligence, they will be found guilty of vehicular manslaughter if:

  • In the course of their driving, they commit a crime that is not considered a felony in California, but it is an infraction or a misdemeanor
  • The driver committed an ordinarily lawful act, but it could cause death.

It is essential to understand that already a DUI, either of drugs or alcohol, is an unlawful act that can cause death. This means that another act, whether lawful or unlawful, must have been done to cause death. Additionally, an act that is said to be unlawful need not be a dangerous act, but under the circumstances, the act may be considered dangerous.

For instance, two friends decide to smoke weed and get to a car. One of them is driving while high on the pot. On getting on the freeway, they encounter traffic, but after some time, the driver decides to use the exit only lane where traffic is moving. When the driver tries to come back to the normal lane, she may lose control of the vehicle and hit the guardrail because of the wet roads. The passenger because they had no safety belt on gets killed instantly.

First, the driver did not need to drive on the exit lane because he or she had no intentions to exit. This is an act that is illegal but not necessarily dangerous. However, the conditions of the road made the act more dangerous. In such a case, the driver can be charged with vehicular manslaughter found under PEN 191.5(b).


If a driver acts with negligence that is considered ordinary and is intoxicated, they can be charged with violations of PEN 191.5(b) when a person dies. This means that the defendant failed in using reasonable care that could have prevented possible harm to another person. A person is said to behave negligently if:

  • They engage in an act that normally a cautious person would avoid under similar circumstances
  • The person fails to do something that an average prudent person would ensure it is done under a similar situation

For a conviction on vehicular manslaughter when the driver was intoxicated and negligent, there must be evidence that the death happened due to the negligence.

According to PEN 191.5(b), death must have been natural, direct, and as a result of the driver’s conduct. The actions of the driver must be the only reason the death happened or must be a significant fact in causing death.

Penalties for PEN 191.5(b) Violations

Violations of PEN 191.5(b) are prosecuted as wobbler offenses. Based on the circumstances around the incidence and the criminal record of the defendant. The charges can be either as a felony or a misdemeanor.

If a person is convicted of a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter on ordinary negligence, they are likely to face the following penalties:

  • A summary or misdemeanor probation
  • A county jail time of not more than a year
  • A cash fine not exceeding $1,000

However, when the offense is prosecuted as a felony, and a conviction is arrived at, the defendant faces the following penalties:

  • A formal or felony probation
  • Imprisonment for either 16 months, 2 or 4 years
  • A cash fine not exceeding $10,000

If Convicted of PEN 191.5(b), Can the Defendant Lose their Driver’s License?

When a person is found guilty of violating PEN 191.5(b), automatically, their license is suspended for a year. This is another harsh penalty in addition to the previously discussed ones. However, if the conviction is a misdemeanor, the defendant will not lose their license. Should the defendant be found driving while their license is on suspension, they will get charged with violating VEH 14601.


Possible Legal Defenses for PEN 191.5(b) Violations

Ordinarily, the law and the general public are very harsh on drunk driving. Should an accident leading to fatality happen, and it is established that there was involvement of drugs and alcohol, people jump to conclusions.

However, it is possible to fight these charges with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Some of the legal defenses your attorney may use include:

During the Accident, You were not Intoxicated

Your lawyer can use the normal defenses in a DUI offense to challenge the allegations that you were intoxicated. To do this, your lawyer is likely to do the following:


  • Challenge the allegations that after the accident the defendant appeared intoxicated with illness, fatigue or shock which are similar signs of an intoxicated driver
  • Attack the breath or blood test results by challenging their validity. Maybe there were violations when doing the tests or contamination of your blood sample.
  • Your lawyer may challenge the procedure used for the DUI arrest. This is done to try and uncover any police misconduct during the arrest or any unlawful deeds.

During the Accident, You Were Not Negligent

When driving, a driver is forced to make fast decisions in some cases. It is not easy to argue the decisions a person makes are negligent even when they turn out to be bad to support these charges. When a defendant is charged with violating PC191.5(b), your lawyer can argue that you were driving just like an ordinarily cautious person. The defendant was not negligent at all while driving.

Your Negligence was Not the Cause of the Death

With the help of an expert in accident reconstruction, your attorney can argue the case that even if you acted with negligence, your negligent actions were not the cause of the death.

You Were Faced With a Sudden Emergency, and Under the Circumstances, You Acted Reasonably

The law on vehicular manslaughter when the driver is intoxicated indicates that the defendant must use the same caution in making judgment during an emergency as an ordinary person that is cautious. If the driver made a decision another person would have under similar circumstances, they could not be found guilty of PEN 191.5(b) violations.


Find a California Criminal Lawyer Group Near Me

Charges of manslaughter carry very hefty penalties. If a person is convicted of any of these charges, their lives are never the same again. If not well represented, a person can be charged for the wrong offense, and receive penalties they do not deserve. Hiring an experienced attorney in homicide cases is a smart way to ensure a fair and favorable trial. Get in touch with us today at the California Criminal Lawyer Group and let us fight these allegations for you. Call us today at 408-622-0204, and we will be glad to make an appointment with you.

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